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Tuna two-step back to playoff glory

Bill Parcells (five-year absence) and Cowboys (four years) return to postseason.

Published January 3, 2004

Early this week, Bill Parcells made his way around the Cowboys' meeting room asking veteran players how many times they had been to the playoffs.

He already knew the answers.

Um, not many.

"That just goes to show you, you never know when you're going to get back," Parcells said, completing his story. "So grab this moment, take advantage of this moment."

Parcells and the Cowboys, one-time playoffs institutions, make their ballyhooed returns at 8 tonight when Dallas visits Carolina for an NFC wild-card game.

"I know that there are a few teams in football where, when they're good, all is well in the NFL," John Madden, color commentator for Monday Night Football on ABC, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "And I think that Dallas is one of those teams."

The Cowboys are the NFL's most prolific playoff team, with records for appearances (27), games (53) and victories (32). Dubbed America's Team, they won Super Bowls after the 1971, '77, '92, '93 and '95 seasons.

Then there is Parcells.

Making his ninth playoff appearance in 16 seasons, Parcells, 62, is the only coach to take four teams to the playoffs (Giants, Patriots, Jets and Cowboys). He won two Super Bowls with the Giants and lost a third with the Patriots. At 11-6, he is the winningest active playoff coach and fifth all-time behind Tom Landry, Don Shula, Chuck Noll and Joe Gibbs.

But it has been a while - the 1999 season for the Cowboys and the 1998 season for Parcells - since either was in the playoffs. One year and one day after Parcells was hired, both are back.

"I don't think the corner is turned, I really don't," Parcells said. "I think it takes two or three years before you can say your program has enough continuity to turn the corner. I hope we have a better team next year."

Dallas, 5-11 each of the past three seasons, appeared in need of a major overhaul when owner Jerry Jones coaxed Parcells, nicknamed "Tuna", out of a three-year retirement in January 2003. But behind the league's top-ranked defense, Parcells' disciplined approach and the confidence that comes from trusting the man in charge, the Cowboys are the success story of the season.

Safety Darren Woodson, one of two players remaining from Dallas' last playoff victory in 1996, can think of no better playoff coach than Parcells.

"This guy knows how to get teams ready to play, especially in a playoff run," Woodson said.

And so, all week, the coach with two Super Bowl rings gave a crash course in playoff intensity to a roster of young Dallas players, many of whom grew up watching America's Team on television. Parcells even interrupted a practice to make his point.

"A young guy made a mistake and he jumped him real bad," defensive tackle La'Roi Glover told the Associated Press. "He called everyone together and said, "You (mess) up like that in a game and you're letting down that 11-year vet who's only been to the playoffs once. You're letting down this guy who has never been to the playoffs. You're letting down all your teammates. They will never forgive you for it.'

"That hit home right there."

Of course, not everyone is thrilled with the fuss being made about the return of America's Team, starting with the Panthers, who won the NFC South at 11-5 and are three-point favorites tonight.

"I wasn't even born when they got that title, so I don't know why they are America's Team," Carolina defensive tackle Brentson Buckner told the Associated Press. "I read a couple books, but I never got the answer for it. Does it irk you? Yeah, because you are out here doing the same thing."

The Cowboys (10-6) are not the most impressive team in the playoffs. The offense, with third-year quarterback Quincy Carter at the helm and Pasco High product Troy Hambrick in the backfield, is inconsistent. Dallas was held to 10 points or fewer in four of eight road games and had only two victories against teams above .500.

"Certainly, any team in the league would have a really good chance to beat us if we don't play well," said Parcells, who has lost in the opening round just twice. "Even though our record says a little differently, I know that for a fact. That's where we are."

Still, the Cowboys are in the playoffs for the first time in four seasons and with their high-profile coach snagged the opening weekend's only prime-time game.

"You have the fans of the Cowboys and that group of people that hate the Cowboys," said Madden, who will call the game with Al Michaels. "And in either case, they're watching. They want to see them win, or they want to see them lose. But either way, they're paying attention.

"In order for that to really kick in, you have to be a pretty good team. And I think the Cowboys got it all back when they hired Bill Parcells. He helped them get back into the playoffs, and now the lovers and the haters can come out again."

- Information from Times wires was used in the report.

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